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california ecology outdoors

Origins & etymologies / Yosemite

Last Fri­day, we impro­vised a par­lor game dur­ing a vis­it to Sarah's par­ents’ house. They've got tons of books on Cal­i­for­nia his­to­ry, includ­ing a gem called Cal­i­for­nia Place Names: The Ori­gin and Ety­mol­o­gy of Cur­rent Geo­graph­i­cal Names by one Erwin Gud­de, a Cal pro­fes­sor and friend of Sarah's fam. There wasn't much "game" to the game; some­one shout­ed out a city or coun­ty or riv­er name, and then we all offered the­o­ries about its ori­gin before flip­ping to its entry in the book and read­ing aloud. A sam­ple. Yosemite:

From the South­ern Sier­ra Miwok yohhe' meti or yosse' meti [mean­ing] "they are killers," derived from yoohu- [mean­ing] "to kill," evi­dent­ly a name giv­en to the Indi­ans of the val­ley by those out­side it … Edwin Sher­man claimed dis­cov­ery of the val­ley in the spring of 1850, nam­ing it "The Devil's Cel­lar." In March of 1851, it was entered by the Mari­posa Bat­tal­ion and named at the sug­ges­tion of LH Bun­nell: "I then pro­posed that we give the val­ley the name of Yo-sem-i-ty, as it was sug­ges­tive, eupho­nious, and cer­tain­ly Amer­i­can; that by so doing, the name of the tribe of Indi­ans which we met leav­ing their homes in this val­ley, per­haps nev­er to return, would be per­pet­u­at­ed."

There's so much infor­ma­tion in here that it's hard to know where to start, but (1) Yes, majes­tic wilder­ness should be called things like "they are killers." This should be a require­ment for any place that is rugged and majes­tic and awe-inspir­ing. What words can match land­scapes like these? Those that involve vio­lent death, for starters. (2) I can guess at why were the Indi­ans leav­ing, "per­haps nev­er to return," but this seems like a detail that should be, say, expand­ed. (3) The "y" at the end, for my mon­ey, makes more sense. It was replaced by an "e" in 1852 by a Lt. Tred­well Moore. No expla­na­tion is giv­en as to why; the impli­ca­tion is, why not? More on Yosemite here, but the whole book is pret­ty great.

2 replies on “Origins & etymologies / Yosemite”

Odd­ly if you go to Yosemite Nation­al Park you will see signs talk­ing about the orig­i­nal Indi­ans of Yosemite. On those signs in the Park you will see Miwoks as the orig­i­nal Native peo­ple. There is even a Yosemite Miwok vil­lage that was cre­at­ed in the 1970s. But if you read the book "The Dis­cov­ery of Yosemite" by Dr. Lafayette H. Bun­nell, the only man to meet and write about the orig­i­nal Indi­ans of Yosemite Val­ley, he wrote that the Chief Tenaya was "The Founder of the Paiute Colony of Ahwah­nee". He also wrote that Tenaya spoke Paiute. You see in old­en times Paiutes and Miwoks were ene­mies. So when the white mili­tia came to the west­ern bor­der of Yosemite to clear out the hos­tile Indi­ans out of the Sier­ra Neva­da, because they kept steal­ing from and attack­ing the ear­ly white gold min­ers who ven­tured into area look­ing for gold. The leader of the white mili­tia was James Sav­age and his trad­ing post was one of the places that was attacked and burned down. At the time James Sav­age had many wives from the Miwok and Yokut tribes and many of his work­ers where from those tribes. So Sav­age was put in charge and the Miwoks were the scouts who helped locat­ed and cap­ture the orig­i­nal Indi­an peo­ple of Yosemite, the Paiutes of Ahwah­nee. When James Sav­age and the mili­tia asked the leader of the Miwoks, Chief Bautista, he said "We are afraid to enter the Val­ley, because there are witch­es and wiz­ards in the Val­ley". Bautista pro­ceed­ed to give the name which meant "They are Killers" in his Miwok lan­guage for the val­ley of the Ahwah­nee, because they were afraid to enter Yosemite. That is how the name Yosemite came to be from the scouts of Mari­posa Bat­tal­ion. But if you go into Yosemite you will see that the Park and Fed­er­al gov­ern­ment has giv­en the title of orig­i­nal Indi­ans of Ahwah­nee to those who were afraid of the orig­i­nal Indi­ans of Yosemite and who were in fact the scouts for the mili­tia. You are now one of the few peo­ple to know the true sto­ry of the name Yosemite, which in Miwok means "They are Killers". Why would you call your­self the killers if you were the same tribe?